By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, February 15, 2013

When Andre Malraux Met The High Priest Of Hinduism

French President Francois Hollande arrived in New Delhi yesterday (Feb. 14) on a two-day State visit to India, to strengthen the commercial and strategic rapport between India and France.
Seeing him on the national TV network, I was reminded of a memorable interview which Andre Malraux (pronounced Mahlro) -- the world-famous French novelist, intellectual and politician -- had with India's first and single black-and-white TV channel in the Capital, 40 years ago.

Probably the interview was more memorable for me than for most other viewers, because I wrote a light-hearted article about it in Shankar's Weekly, which was India's unique humorous English magazine.

Shankar's Weekly, 1973
Illustrious visitors

(Two characters who figure in this article may need an introduction to readers who aren't familiar with Indian history. Chandragupta Maurya was an ancient Indian emperor of the 4th century BC, a contemporary of Alexander; and Sankaracharya was a venerable 9th-century Hindu pontiff).

IN a recent interview on Delhi-TV, M. Andre Malraux said that he would have liked to talk to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Chandragupta Maurya and Sankaracharya.

When M. Malraux returned from the TV studio to his five-star hotel, he was informed that a gentleman by name of Alexander had telephoned. The receptionist gave him a number, at which the caller said he would be available.

M. Malraux went up to his room and rang up the number.

"Hello!" said a massive voice at the other end.

"Andre Malraux here," the Frenchman said. "May I know wh is speaking?"

"Good evening!" the voice said. "I am Alexander!"

"Which Alexander?"

"The Great, of Macedon."

"Oh, really? What a coincidence, M'sieu! I was just telling those TV gens here that I would have liked to talk to you, and here you are!"

"This is no coincidence, my friend! I saw you on TV and you said you wished to speak to me. So I just telephoned. What can I do for you?"

"Oh, nothing at all, M'sieu! I merely wante to have the pleasure of your company, that is all! Will you join me at dinner tonight?"

"Impossible, mon ami! We shall meet some other time, maybe in Paris! Now, if you have nothing specific in mind, may I bid you good-night?"

"Good-night, M'sieu," M. Malraux said, and thoughtfully began to change for dinner.

Just then the bell-boy came in and said there was a visitor downstairs.

"Who is he?" M. Malraux asked.

"Mr. Caesar, Sir."

"Let me see!" M. Malraux said,dubiously. "All right, ask him to come up, if you please."

A well-built person walked in a little later. He was wearing a shark-skin suit, but he had a Roman nose all right.

"I am Julius Caesar," he announced. "I saw you on TV, and you said you wanted to speak to me. So I just came along!"

"Oh, I am enchanted, M'sieu!" M. Malraux found himself saying, in spite of his doubts. "Will you please join me for dinner?"

"I would love to, my friend, but I have another engagement. I just peeped in here to say hello to you!"

"It is very kind of you, M'sieu!" M. Malraux said. But after the visitor had left, he became very thoughtful.

During dinner he came to the conclusion that this was just a practical joke played by some mischievous viewers. He decided that if either 'Chandragupta Maurya' or 'Sankaracharya' turned up, he would call the bluff.

Nobody else came to see him that night, but early next morning a pious-looking South Indian gentleman turned up at the hotel and introduced himself at the front desk. When the receptionist asked M. Malraux on the intercom whether she could send Mr. Sankaracharya up, he told her that he would be descending to the lounge presently, and would the visitor meet him there after ten minutes?

M. Malraux, however, made no attempt to move downstairs for a long while. He hoped that the joker would get tired of waiting and just go away.

But when he went down for lunch after two hours, the visitor -- who had been waiting patiently -- walked up to him and introduced himself.

"You say you are Sankaracharya?" M. Malraux asked. "Impossible, M'sieu! I do not believe you! Now, if you will kindly excuse me, I wish to have my lunch alone."

"So that's it, ha ha!" the visitor laughed.

"What do you mean, M'sieu?" M. Malraux asked, his anger mounting.

"I was wondering why you were trying to avoid me, Mr. Malrocks," the visitor said. "But now I understand! I saw you on TV yesterday evening. So you thought my name is Sankaracharya?"

"Did you not say so, M'sieu?"

"No, Sir, I did not!" the visitor said. "My name is S.K. Sankarachari, and I am an Under-Secretary in the Department of Tourism. I have come to find out whether we can be of any assistance to you, Sir!


Postscript, 2013

Looking at this article after so many years, I can't help wishing I had sent a cutting of it to Mr. Andre Malraux! Who knows, he might have written back to me quite warmly; and, with his keen sense of humor, might even have asked me to "be so kind as to convey the expression of my affectionate sentiments to M. Sankarachari", as the French are fond of ending their communications with a colorful flourish!

By the way, the designation 'Under-Secretary' in the Government of India set-up refers to an officer at a relatively junior level -- unlike in the U.K., where it indicates a very senior status in the official hierarchy.

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